A fireworks 'nightmare' recalled one year later
It was the eve of Independence Day and Pelham Fire Chief James Midgley was getting ready for his town's fireworks display when the first reports came in of a fireworks explosion at a residence. The house was on fire, and there were multiple burn injuries.
Heading up Route 38 to the scene, Midgley saw it: "A large mushroom cloud."
It was evidence of what experts call a "rapid exothermic reaction," Midgley said: "a very powerful release of energy over a very short period of time." And he knew something terrible had happened.
Thirteen people - five of them children - suffered burns and puncture injuries last year when a "spinner" went awry and ignited hundreds of reloadable mortar shells that had been stored on a back deck.
The accident occurred at the Dodge Road home of Pelham Selectman Edmund Gleason's daughter and son-in-law, Jeannie and Chris Pappathan.
"These aren't the typical devices from years ago, firecrackers and bottle rockets, things we grew up with," Midgley said. "These are large explosives, almost like grenades, and they pack a heckuva punch."
The porch where the fireworks were stored was filled with people, he said. "You had these devices ... going sideways, hitting the house, going into the porch, going into the kitchen, hitting people, burning into them....
"That's what caused a lot of the critical injuries, is once they contacted the person, they continued to burn into them."
The most seriously injured was the Pappathans' grandson, 3-year-old Ben Bertini.
"He literally had a hole in his chest from where one of the devices had burned into him," Midgley said.
Gleason recounted the call from his daughter the night of the explosion. "She said, 'I've just had the worst night of my life. My nightmare has come true.'"
One of the other children who was burned, 8-month-old Olivia Foy, escaped even more serious injuries because her mother, Marci Foy, shielded her in her arms as she fled the deck, the chief said. "Her mother actually took the brunt of the hit and protected her."
The Foys talk about their ordeal in a fireworks safety video posted on the website of the National Fire Protection Association (nfpa.org).
The Foys and Pappathans could not be reached for comment last week.
The Pelham accident prompted Gleason and Midgley to push for a ban on the types of fireworks that ignited that night.
Rep. Charlene Takesian, R-Pelham, agreed to sponsor such a measure in the last session, but it was retained in the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee for further study.
House Bill 336 would ban retail sales of helicopters, aerial spinners, reloadable shells and parachute devices. And it would require retailers to provide consumers a pamphlet approved by the state Department of Safety, detailing "the appropriate and safe use" of the fireworks.
"There's got to be better education relative to the dangers and the precautions that have to be taken," Gleason said. "Fireworks are gunpowder. They have the potential to be lethal, and they certainly have the potential to be maiming."
Reloadable aerial shells were banned in New Hampshire until two years ago. Midgley said lobbyists for the fireworks industry persuaded lawmakers to repeal the ban in 2011 by arguing there were no New Hampshire data that proved such devices were not safe.
"Well, I think now we have a track record that they're unsafe," Midgley said. "What are you waiting for? How much more damage has to occur before action is taken?"
According to the state Fire Marshal's Office, there were 19 injuries from fireworks reported voluntarily to the state in 2012.
Fire Marshal J. William Degnan said he favors making it mandatory for health care providers to report fireworks injuries, just as they do gunshot or knife wounds and dog bites. And he wants to see the ban reinstated on certain kinds of fireworks.
Degnan said consumers mistakenly assume anything on a store shelf is safe. "That is the mind set of people: that if it's allowed to be sold, they're safe," he said. "They don't understand the lobbying that goes on behind it by the industries."
He noted the state's permissible fireworks advisory committee, made up of industry and public safety officials, used to test all consumer fireworks and make recommendations about which could be sold here. That, too, changed with the 2011 legislation.
Rep. Lars Christiansen, R-Hudson, was the sponsor of the 2011 bill. He said he had no second thoughts after what happened in Pelham, which he said was an accident caused by human error.
"It was just a tragic mistake of the people who actually were doing that," he said.
Richard Bouley is a lobbyist for Atlas PyroVision Productions of Jaffrey, the state's largest and oldest fireworks company, renowned for its professional displays.
Atlas also has five retail locations in New Hampshire and one in Maine that sell some of the items Takesian's legislation would ban.
Bouley said Atlas does not favor House Bill 336 as introduced, but supports efforts to make the industry safer.
"There may be some items out there that need to be looked at, that maybe shouldn't be on the counter," he said, "but we don't believe that the Legislature is the one that should decide which items should or should not be."
Instead, he favors giving that responsibility back to the fireworks advisory commission. "We want a solution that's going to be long term, and I think you do that by having experts ... make recommendations on a regular basis to the (safety) commissioner."
Bouley also supports the call for mandatory safety information to be given out by retailers. But he said consumers share responsibility for using fireworks safely.
Midgley said he's not out to ban all fireworks, just those that caused such havoc in his town a year ago. "Not all fireworks are created equal," he said. "Just because you can get it doesn't mean it's safe."
And he doesn't have any patience for industry arguments that such a ban would cost them money. He noted the huge medical costs of those who were injured last July and the costs to his town for the emergency response.
Then, he said, "Let's talk about the impacts we can't measure. Let's talk about the social impacts to these people who were seriously injured. We can't even fathom ... the life of this child who was severely burned and scarred at such a young age."
This Fourth of July, Gleason's family plans to celebrate without fireworks.
"We'll have games and a bouncy house and a dunk-tank," Gleason said. "That's adequate."